Commentary: Lessons Learned in Boosting Pro Bono
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
- Organization: Law.com
What happens when a firm with a long tradition of pro bono service decides to make that tradition even stronger? One result is that the firm can learn some important lessons about what works.
At Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, we have a long tradition of pro bono service. And in the past three years, we've expanded on that tradition significantly, at least as measured in pro bono hours. For the firm as a whole and for the Washington, D.C., office in particular, pro bono hours nearly tripled -- increasing more than 170 percent -- between 2004 and 2006.
The firm's success in expanding pro bono hours began with a strong commitment from management. Although Gibson Dunn has always had local pro bono committees, the firm's management created a national committee to facilitate pro bono projects, streamlined processes for attorneys who wished to take on such work and instituted awards at both the national level and the office level to recognize excellence in pro bono representation.
Some of the lessons that we have learned over the past three years would work for any firm seeking to expand its pro bono program. It cannot be denied, for example, that management commitment is essential to a successful pro bono effort. Other factors that helped us may be more unique to the firm, however. Gibson Dunn allows associates tremendous autonomy in selecting their projects; what works in such a decentralized environment may not work elsewhere. With that caveat in mind, here are some unscientific observations about our experience, with a particular emphasis on our efforts in the Washington, D.C., office.
START AT THE TOP
The path to expanding Gibson Dunn's pro bono effort began with a strong commitment from managing partner Ken Doran to make it a firmwide priority. Before fall 2004, attorneys pursued pro bono interests at their discretion. To organize the firm's efforts and add structure to this framework, the firm created a national pro bono committee, with representatives in each office, led by Los Angeles partner Scott Edelman.
In November 2005 the firm announced that it had signed the Pro Bono Institute's Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge, in which the firm committed to use best efforts to contribute, on average, 60 hours per attorney each year to pro bono work. The firm easily met that goal in the first year of the challenge, with the average hours per attorney at 87.9 for the firm as a whole and at 92.6 for the Washington, D.C., office.
The firm's approach to pro bono relies on exhortation, not mandates. There are no pro bono "assignments" -- participation in pro bono cases is strictly voluntary. The inherent incentives to do pro bono work -- to give back to the community, support worthy causes and, for junior attorneys, hone lawyering skills -- coupled with the encouragement and support of the firm, has been the primary engine to expand pro bono work.
SMOOTH IT OUT
The national pro bono committee serves as a liaison to management and has made it easier for lawyers to perform pro bono work by streamlining work processes, including expediting approval, creating standard retainer agreements for pro bono work and identifying lawyers in each office as points of contact in opening and managing pro bono matters.
The firm's approach to the national pro bono committee differs from that of some other large firms. There are no full-time pro bono coordinators, either nationally or in any particular office. The committee chair and members all have full-time practices outside of their pro bono committee work. We have found that this arrangement works well with the firm's corporate culture, which encourages initiative, placing essential reliance on the firm's attorneys to identify and develop pro bono work.
A key factor in encouraging pro bono work is recognizing the effort. When evaluating associates, the firm gives full credit to associates for time charged to approved pro bono matters. In addition, the firm announced the annual Frank Wheat Memorial Award in 2006, named in honor of a former Gibson Dunn partner who founded the Los Angeles-based Alliance for Children's Rights, helped found the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund and served as a board member for the Center for Law in the Public Interest. The award is given to a team and an individual who display leadership and initiative, obtain significant results for a client and inspire others through pro bono work. The award provides a cash donation to the organization of the winner's choice.
The standards for the award have been high. In 2006, Washington, D.C., associate Mark Vlasic, who is now a White House fellow in the 2006-07 class, won the individual award for his role in training judges from the Iraqi special tribunal on international law and criminal procedure.
Recognition for outstanding pro bono effort does not end at the national level. The Washington, D.C., office recognizes all individuals who contribute a significant amount of time to pro bono work -- more than 200 hours in a billable year -- with special service awards, and the office also acknowledges the contribution of all associates who contribute more than 60 hours of pro bono work in a year.
CHOOSE A VARIETY OF PROJECTS
The firm has an astonishing diversity of pro bono efforts. In Washington alone, we represent children in abuse and neglect proceedings, a charter school before zoning authorities, victims of violence from other countries in asylum applications, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in a suit against the Baltimore police department, tenants and tenant organizations in lawsuits over violations of the implied warranty of habitability, disabled veterans in their appeals and community organizations such as the National Coalition to Save Our Mall.
We take great pride in that diversity. We believe that this sets us apart from pro bono programs that emphasize certain types of specialized pro bono work, such as death penalty representation or asylum cases. Our less centralized approach allows us to be more flexible in responding to the interests of our attorneys as well as meeting the needs of the community.
One of the great advantages of the firm's pro bono structure is that it avoids an overemphasis on traditional litigation pro bono projects, as Gibson Dunn's corporate lawyers have succeeded in cultivating pro bono work better suited to their skills. For example, our D.C. office is spearheading the firm's corporate work for Girl Scouts of the USA, assisting the Girl Scouts in its national realignment strategy by handling the numerous acquisitions required to consolidate council jurisdictions in nearly every state -- a project that will take an estimated three years.
Lawyers from our D.C. office have also forged a relationship with Girls Inc., an organization that offers after-school programs to more than 850,000 girls, ages 6 to 18, annually at more than 1,500 sites nationwide. We helped that organization form a Washington office and tapped an array of specialists -- corporate, tax, commercial, employment, nonprofit and intellectual property attorneys -- to address issues related to its growth. Also, our corporate lawyers have provided extensive legal advice to City First Bank, the region's first and only community development bank, in raising capital.
WELCOME THE NONPROFITS
Another lesson learned is the importance of relationships with nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit organizations provide referrals, identify key issues and are available to assist in areas of law outside of the firm's routine areas of expertise. For example, Gibson Dunn obtains referrals in abuse and neglect cases from the Children's Law Center, which helps at-risk children, their families and caregivers with education, health care and social services. Bread for the City, a local organization that provides D.C.'s most vulnerable residents with food, clothing, medical care and legal and social services, referred Gibson Dunn attorneys to groups of low-income tenants suffering from a variety of housing problems and worked with those attorneys in the ensuing lawsuits. Without its relationships with nonprofits, Gibson Dunn would not have had these referrals and, most likely, would not have been able to take on these representations.
Some relationships with nonprofits go even further. D.C. partner Steven Glover serves as counsel to the Calvary Bilingual Multicultural Learning Center, a comprehensive social service program that today serves 450 adults and 250 children. Partner Chuck Muckenfuss helped found and now serves as a director of City First Bank.
THINK OF TEAMS
Most of Gibson Dunn's pro bono projects are team efforts. In part, this is inherent in the way a large firm operates. Large firms specialize in complex civil litigation and transactions that require a team approach; it is natural that they adapt that manner of working to pro bono matters. Teams also have the added practical advantage of allowing busy lawyers to manage their time commitments by sharing responsibilities.
There is no magic to expanding a pro bono program. It begins with strong management commitment to provide encouragement, administrative support and recognition for attorney contributions. It also requires forming long-term relationships with pro bono service providers and forming project teams. Gibson Dunn has added to this mix its own emphasis on individual initiative to create a diverse program that allows both litigators and corporate attorneys to lend their talents to pro bono projects. This has been Gibson Dunn's formula, and those lessons may work for other firms too.
Daniel Cantu is an associate in the Washington, D.C., office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and a member of the firm's national pro bono committee.